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A Neuroscientist Explores the "Sanskrit Effect"


A hundred dhoti-clad young men sat cross-legged on the floor in facing rows, chatting amongst themselves. At a sign from their teacher the hall went quiet. Then they began the recitation. Without pause or error, entirely from memory, one side of the room intoned one line of the text, then the other side of the room answered with the next line. Bass and baritone voices filled the hall with sonorous prosody, every word distinctly heard, their right arms moving together to mark pitch and accent. The effect was hypnotic, ancient sound reverberating through the room, saturating brain and body. After 20 minutes they halted, in unison. It was just a demonstration. The full recitation of one of India´s most ancient Sanskrit texts, the Shukla Yajurveda, takes six hours.


I spent many years studying and translating Sanskrit, and became fascinated by its apparent impact on mind and memory. In India's ancient learning methods textual memorization is standard: traditional scholars, or pandits, master many different types of Sanskrit poetry and prose texts; and the tradition holds that exactly memorizing and reciting the ancient words and phrases, known as mantras, enhances both memory and thinking.


I had also noticed that the more Sanskrit I studied and translated, the better my verbal memory seemed to become. Fellow students and teachers often remarked on my ability to exactly repeat lecturers’ own sentences when asking them questions in class. Other translators of Sanskrit told me of similar cognitive shifts. So I was curious: was there actually a language-specific “Sanskrit effect” as claimed by the tradition?

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